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San Diegans Begin to Emerge From Fire Crisis

Although the mayor says the troubles are not over, more traffic and busier shops and restaurants indicate a return to normal.

October 30, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Slowly, tentatively, this fire-traumatized city is returning to something resembling normal, although the pain remains.

More businesses reopened Wednesday, shopping centers had more shoppers and the Navy resumed normal operations. Striking grocery workers resumed picketing at supermarkets, and people in cars once again ventured beyond their neighborhoods.

"I would never have thought that a traffic jam was a sign of emotional health, but it does show that people are out of the hiding stage," said Bill Argyle, a hairstylist with a shop downtown.

For the first time this week, the day started with good news.

Fire Chief Jeff Bowman declared that the western flank of the Cedar fire, the monstrous blaze that since Sunday had destroyed 345 homes in the expensive San Diego neighborhood of Scripps Ranch, was 80% contained. The fire has not destroyed any structures within the city of San Diego since early Monday.

But the city's relief was tempered by continued news of homes destroyed elsewhere and, late in the afternoon, of the death of a firefighter near Julian, in the backcountry revered by city residents.

The atmosphere at downtown restaurants, although they attracted the largest noontime crowds of the week, was noticeably subdued. The order of the day seemed to be to keep voices at a whisper.

"People are reflective and quiet, in some ways like after Sept. 11," said Carol Jahnkow, executive director of the Peace Resource Center of San Diego. "We're hearing from people who haven't called us in years, checking on us. A tragedy like this reminds us of our human connectedness."

Mayor Dick Murphy, in his first of several news conferences Wednesday, was quick to remind reporters that, "we still have a major fire crisis in San Diego County ... the fire crisis is not over for the region, and we are one region."

Murphy met for an hour with two dozen religious leaders to plan an interfaith service Sunday for fire victims and the community at large.

The mayor also announced that the city would waive building fees and speed the permitting process for homeowners in Scripps Ranch and Tierrasanta who wish to rebuild. The Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a "one-stop shopping" site in the community center in Scripps Ranch.

With schools still not open, parents scrambled for day care and daytime activities to calm restless children. Movie theaters reported crowds at matinees, particularly for films meant for children.

"We got the last three seats for 'Good Boy,' " a PG-tale about a dog, said Susan Rather, describing herself as a stressed-out mother of boys ages 6 and 8.

To ease the trauma on children, the San Diego Padres and the Wal-Mart shopping chain announced plans for a Halloween party for the offspring of those displaced by the fires.

"We're in the calming phase now," said Msgr. Joseph Carroll, the director of a San Diego homeless shelter who has assisted in the relief effort for the thousands of people who have fled their homes.

"Some people are still walking around in a zombie state, others are angry at the fire, angry at lots of things," said Bill Garcia, wildland firefighter-turned-private investigator. "There's going to be a lot of emotional trauma over the next few days."

"Along with feeling relief and a need to help, people are feeling a certain amount of guilt," said environmental consultant Bob Glaser, who watched as fire came to the edge of his office.

"You're grateful you survived, but you know that others didn't."

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